I’m not sure what we expected to find at the Pre-Cana class held in the reception hall of another parish, but I was a little shocked by what we did find. We were by far the oldest of the couples at 32 years old—most were in their late teens or early twenties. We were not pregnant, nor had we already had a child together. We were not starry-eyed neophytes holding hands dreamily secure in our shared faith.
At the time, we attended mass sporadically at the Wilshire Boulevard Our Lady of Angels, which in my Los Angeles sits between a very nice synagogue, The Wiltern Theater, The Piccadilly (an aging nineteen twenties high-rise apartment building in which we had considered renting the penthouse soon after the riots when the rents were down, way down) and The Ambassador Hotel (of Kennedy shooting fame and whose own demise has been too painful for me to watch). Our Lady of Angels had an adorable cantor with a lovely voice, huge stained glass windows, interesting sculptural Stations of the Cross, and nicely polished wooden pews with squeak-less kneelers. The Pre-Cana class would be held at another parish.
Google map clutched in my hand, we sat in our Civic hatchback in the parking lot and questioned whether what crouched before us was, in fact, a church at all, but maybe a public or parochial school. The buildings had the flat-roofed exterior walkways propped atop metal poles favored by California elementary schools, libraries, and UC system campuses. We followed other couples who looked like they knew where they were going into the reception hall. Metal folding chairs in that dark, institutional beige. Speckled linoleum tiles in bisque and fawn. Cement block walls painted a tasteful Navajo White, the wall color favored by apartment management companies everywhere in So Cal. So much for the pageantry and romance of a two thousand-year-old faith tradition.
We spent an entire day sitting in those beige folding chairs. I remember only a few things.
We prayed. Everyone knew the prayer. Everyone but me. Catholics have lots of prayers that they all seem to know the words to—like their own private Beatles sing-along in a world in which only Catholics have ever heard of the Beatles. Protestants say the Our Father, observe a tasteful moment of silence, or chime in with a heartfelt Amen at the end of the pastor-lead prayer. Twenty years in, I can now report that Catholics like to keep prayer cards handy, they say the rosary, novenas, several prayers during mass that do not change, a universally used meal blessing. They all know these prayers. And, unlike the Metropolitan Opera, there are no subtitles.
A priest flatteringly introduced the couple leading the seminar. They had been married for seven years. They had four children. He was active with St. Vincent de Paul (a charity), and she taught natural family planning and organized bake sales—or something like that. Very nice people. Warm. Good intentioned. Active in the parish.
We participated in several exercises meant to demonstrate the various blessings and obligations of married life. I don’t remember most of them. I do remember we were asked to exchange wallets with our partners early in the morning and hold them until lunch break. Rich and I laughed at the discomfort of the youngsters around us: we knew each other’s PINs, mothers’ maiden names, social security numbers. When my husband and I got married, we had already been living together for eight years—the point at which most couples in California call it quits. We not only had been shopping with each other’s credit cards, we knew enough about each other’s financial identities to buy a house in the other’s name if we felt like it.
Meanwhile, the skinny 19-year-old girl primly sitting next to us gingerly handed her eel-skin wallet to the gangsta-fied dandy slouched in his folding chair next to her, backwards baseball cap jauntily color-coordinated with his blue-striped boxer briefs. The toothpick in his mouth was an extra. When the couple leading the course suggested, we aren’t going to ask you to give your partner your car keys, but you might as well do that too, backwards baseball cap grinned around his toothpick and said, yeah, like that’s going to happen—ain't nobody touching my ride.
The couple asked by show of hands, how long each couple had been together. One month: almost everyone. Two months: a few hands drop. Six months: several more couples down. One year: several more bite the dust. Two years: a quarter of the room still has their hands in the air. Three years: just me and Rich and the only other couple over 25. Four years: just us. So, how long have you been dating, the man asks. (His wife barely said a word the whole day.) We giggle, Rich coughs, and I pipe up: We’ve been living together for eight years, I say proudly.
This was not, apparently, a point in our favor. But it did generate another round of questions by show of hands: How many of you have children? How many of you are expecting? How many of you currently live together? Catholics are nothing if not fecund. There were a handful of sinners with multiple children already between them. At least two buns in the oven. And a scattering of couples like us merely living in sin.
Natural family planning was discussed. And by discussed, I mean we were handed pamphlets directing us to organizations and persons who could inform us about natural family planning if we were interested. We were sternly reminded that the church does not condone artificial means of contraception. The couple said they practiced natural family planning, and they reported, it worked pretty well for them. I’m guessing child number four had netted the “pretty well” qualifier. See, fecund.
I looked at the cover of the pamphlet and asked, so, you interested in spinning this roulette wheel? Rich shook his head no with the seriousness and vehemence some of the other men had reserved for their wallets and car keys.